Stream of the Day: ‘God’s Own Country’ Deserves to Be a ‘Call Me by Your Name’ Sensation

Gay romances directed by Francis Lee and Luca Guadagnino both earned acclaim in 2017, but only one achieved crossover success.
"Gods Own Country"
"Gods Own Country"
Samuel Goldwyn Films

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Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me by Your Name” and Francis Lee’s “God’s Own Country” both world premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival to universal acclaim and ended the year as two of 2017’s best reviewed movies. “God’s Own Country” boasts a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, while “Call Me by Your Name” holds a 95%. Each film tells an emotionally-charged gay love story set in a European countryside and features a breakout lead performance from a remarkable new talent (Timothée Chalamet and Josh O’Connor).

And yet, the coupling of Elio and Oliver is bound to inspire more swoons in the collective hearts of moviegoers than the coupling of Johnny and Gheorghe. You’d be hard pressed to find many moviegoers who even know who Johnny and Gheorghe are in the first place.

“God’s Own Country” marked the directorial debut of British filmmaker Francis Lee, who based the script partly on his own struggle with deciding whether or not to pursue drama school or to stay home and work on his family farm. O’Connor plays a tough Yorkshire farmhand named George, who’s forced to tend to his family’s land after his father suffers a stroke. The family hires a Romanian migrant worker named Gheorghe (Alec Secăreanu, showing off all the sensitive masculinity Armie Hammer does) to help assist with lambing season, and the two men form a romantic bond that chips away at their troubled defenses.

“Call Me by Your Name” and “God’s Own Country” stand on their own as remarkable queer romances, each with a distinct visual style that bolsters the central love story. Guadagnino bathes “Call Me by Your Name” in sun-drenched lighting and lush summer greenery. His characters spend their days shirtless and sunbathing, close-ups revealing the sweat on their foreheads. Every visual choice Guadagnino makes envelops his characters in a hot and heavenly atmosphere that matches their simmering-to-a-boil romance.

“God’s Own Country” takes a more hardened approach. Lee’s palette is cold, grey, and muddy, made all the more rough by the immediacy of his handheld camera and tight close-ups. Whereas the romance in “Call Me by Your Name” is shaped in tandem with Guadagnino’s style, the romance in “God’s Own Country” acts as counterpoint to Lee’s grungy and grounded atmosphere. Lee is able to intensify the romantic spark between his characters by ensuring it stands out as their only savior from dreary surroundings. In their own way, these films succeed in equal measure at ensuring the push and pull of sexual attraction feels as arousing for the viewer as it does for the characters.

“God’s Own Country”Samuel Goldwyn Films

So why then does “Call Me by Your Name” become a crossover sensation with $18 million at the domestic box office and “God’s Own Country” all but disappears with $335,000? Putting the titles in context with each other shows there is still a limit to the crossover potential of a gay love story. Three of the biggest gay romances this century are “Call Me by Your Name,” “Carol” ($18 million domestically), and “Brokeback Mountain” ($83 million), all of which crossed over by starring high profile actors and taking a more restrained approach to depicting sex and nudity. The central sex scene in “Call Me by Your Name” is notable for how the camera pans away from the characters during their lovemaking. Todd Haynes films his “Carol” sex scene in delicate close-ups of flesh. “Brokeback Mountain” does have one rough sex scene, but the characters are clothed and it only lasts for a couple seconds.

None of these films handle sexuality and nudity as explicitly as “God’s Own Country,” which includes full frontal nudity. It’s not that the sex scenes in the film last long or are as explicit as “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” but Lee’s grounded style makes them feel so much rawer and more intense than anything in “Call Me by Your Name.” When Johnny and Gheorghe begin to have sex after wrestling in the mud, Lee doesn’t cut away and lets his characters’ awakening desires and palpable sexual tension play out in real time. It’s artfully constructed on Lee’s part, but it plays out with an intensity that feels as provocative and startling as an NC-17 movie.

Lee directs sex in all its messy, passionate glory and he doesn’t pretty it up or for the camera (here’s looking at you, “Carol”), which no doubt limited “God’s Own Country’s” crossover potential, as did its unknown actors. It’s telling that a strongly-reviewed film like “Disobedience” (now streaming on Amazon Prime), which starred high profile talent like Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz but also featured an explicit sex scene, managed more box office success in the U.S. ($3.4 million) but failed to resonate across the culture: Sex can boost visibility, but it won’t give a gay romance the legs it needs to stand the test of time.

Lee’s next film is the Neon-backed “Ammonite,” a lesbian romance starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan. The film sounds like a crossover hit, but that could depend on how far Lee is willing to take the romance. “God’s Own Country” did not become a sensation, but Johnny and Gheorghe’s romance is just as breathtaking and passionate as Elio and Oliver’s; now it’s just waiting to be discovered.

“God’s Own Country” is currently streaming on Netflix.

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